“Beauty will save the world” – Dostoyevski tells us how
We learned from the Greeks, and then it was passed down through the centuries, that all beings, no matter how different they may be, have three transcendental characteristics (they are always present, regardless of situation, place and time): they are, unum, verum et bonum, that is, the being enjoys an internal unity that maintains its existence; it is truthful, because it presents itself as it is in reality, and it is good, because it is well adapted for its role alongside other beings, helping them exist and coexist.
The Medieval Franciscan masters, such as Alexandre de Hales and especially Saint Bonaventure, were those who, carrying on a tradition that came from Dionysius Aeropagita and Saint Augustine, ascribed another transcendental characteristic to the being: pulchrum, that is, beauty. Surely based in personal experience, Saint Francis, who was a poet and a aesthetic of exceptional quality, who “in the beauty of the creatures would see the Most Beautiful,” enriched our understanding of the being through the dimension of beauty. All beings, even those that appear repugnant to us, viewed with affection, in their details and in their whole, offer, each in its own way, a unique beauty, if not in its form, in the way the whole is articulated with surprising equilibrium and harmony.
One of the greatest connoisseurs of beauty was Fyodor Dostoyevski. Beauty was so central to his life, as we are told by the Benedictine monk and great spiritualist Anselm Grün, in his last book, Beauty: a new spirituality of the joy of living, (Belleza: una nueva espiritualidad de la alegría de vivir, Vier Türme Verlag, 2014), that the great Russian novelist would go every year to Dresde to contemplate Raphael’s beautiful Madonna Sixtina. He would remain for long periods contemplating that splendid work. This fact is surprising, because his novels delved into the most obscure and even perverse areas of the human soul. But in fact what moved him was the search for beauty. He gave us this famous phrase: “Beauty will save the world”, in his novel, The Idiot.
In the The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski deepens the question. An atheist, Ippolit, asks prince Mischkin: “How could ‘beauty save the world’?” The prince says nothing but goes to an 18 year old young man in agony. And he stays with him, filled with compassion and love, until the young man dies. With that the prince wanted to express that beauty is what takes us to love, shared with suffering; the world will be saved now and always so long as that gesture exists. And how we miss it now!
For Dostoyevski, the contemplation of Raphael’s Madonna was his personal therapy. Without it he would have despaired for mankind and for himself, with all the problems he saw. In his writings he described evil and destructive people, and others who were close to the abyss of desperation. But his vision, that rhymed love with shared suffering, managed to see beauty in the soul of the most perverse characters. For Dostoyevski, the opposite of the beautiful was not the ugly, but the utilitarian; the spirit of using others, and thereby stealing their dignity.
“We surely cannot live without bread, but it is also impossible to exist without beauty”, Dostoyevski would repeat. Beauty is more than aesthetics, it possesses an ethical and religious dimension. He saw in Jesus one who sowed beauty. “He was an example of beauty and He planted it in people’s souls, so that through beauty they all would become brothers to each other”. Dostoyevski does not refer to loving the other. To the contrary: it is beauty that elicits love and makes us see in the other someone to be loved.
Our culture, dominated by marketing, sees beauty as a bodily construction, and not as the totality of the person. Consequently plastic surgery, botox and other methods appear to make people more “beautiful”. As an artificial beauty, it has no soul. And if we look closely, this fabricated beauty results in a cold beauty, with an aura of artificiality that lacks radiance. This evokes vanity, not love, because beauty has to do with love and communication. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski observes that a face is beautiful when one can perceive that in it, God and the Devil litigate about good and evil. When one perceives that good is victorious, there arises an expressive beauty, soft, natural and radiant. Which beauty is better: the beauty of the cold face of a top model, or the wrinkled and radiant face of Sister Dulce from Salvador de Bahia, or of Mother Teresa from Calcuta? Beauty is a radiance of the being. In the two Sisters that radiance is manifest, in the top model, it has no strength.
Pope Francis has given special importance in the transmission of the Christian faith to the via pulchritudinis (the path of beauty). That the message is good and just is not enough. It has to be beautiful, because only that way can it touch people’s hearts and elicit the love that attracts, (Exhortation The joy of the Gospel, n 167). The Church does not seek proselytizing, but the attraction that comes from beauty and the love whose characteristic is splendor.
Beauty has value in itself. It is not utilitarian. It is like the flower that flowers just to flower. It does not matter if it is seen or not, as the mystic Angelus Silesius says. But, who is not fascinated by a flower that gratuitously smiles to the universe? Thus we must live beauty in the midst of a world of interests, exchanges and merchandise. Then beauty makes real its Sanskrit origin, Bet-El-Za, meaning “the place where God shines”. It shines for everything and also makes us shine for the beautiful.
Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, firstname.lastname@example.org,
done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.